Conferences Work to Reverse New Immigration Policy in Texas

Author: David McMillin       

Relocating a conference after contracts have been signed comes with serious financial consequences, but the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) felt that it had to speak with its wallet after the Texas state legislature passed a controversial immigration law. On June 8, AILA announced that it will move its 2018 annual conference from Grapevine, Texas to a to-be-determined location to protest Senate Bill 4. Critics believe that the law, which allows police to request information on a detainee’s national citizenship, may lead to racial profiling and unfair treatment for immigrants. After the law was passed, the AILA called an emergency meeting of its Board of Governors.

“This was a very thorough discussion about the projected impact on both sides of the equation,” Anastasia Tonello, first vice president of AILA, wrote in a blog post on the association’s website detailing the association’s decision-making process. “AILA would be subject to financial penalties for cancelling our contract, yes, but these costs were weighed against the financial losses we could expect from low attendance. We heard from many groups of members from around the country who were clear that they would not attend the next [annual conference].”

The association’s leaders discussed the possibility of keeping the conference in Texas and including protests in the event, but they determined that money can send a more powerful message. The conference was initially slated to bring approximately 3,000 lawyers to Grapevine for the four-day program.

Staying Put

While AILA decided to find a new host destination, another organization is taking a different route to raise awareness about the law. The National Association of Latino Elected Officials Educational Fund will host its annual conference in Dallas from June 22—24. Rather than leaving Texas, the association is putting the issue at the center of the agenda with a special plenary session, “Supporting the Lone Star State Post SB4: How Latino Leaders Can United to Combat Anti-Immigrant Laws and Practices.”

Phillip Jones, president and CEO of Visit Dallas, highlighted that NALEO’s efforts to reverse SB4 and support the immigrant community can make a big impact on educating lawmakers about the dangers of the legislation. He has been on calls with leaders from NALEO on a regular basis and looks forward to Dallas playing a role in facilitating the discussion about the issue. “The Dallas delegation [of NALEO] has been one of the most vocal opponents of SB4,” Jones told PCMA. “By coming to Dallas, they can help shape the conversation and shine an even bigger spotlight on the issue.”

NALEO isn’t the only organization that is using its conference as a platform for promoting change. Two federal lawmakers, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) sent a letter to SXSW CEO Roland Swenson, requesting that he find a new home for the annual music, tech, and film gathering, but Swenson does not believe that finding a new home is the right move. “We understand why, in today’s political climate, people are asking us to leave Texas,” Swenson wrote in a statement. “For us, this is not a solution. Austin is our home and an integral part of who we are. We will stay here and continue to make our event inclusive while fighting for the rights of all.

Challenging the Law

While SB4 made it through the state government, some of the convention stars of the state are joining the efforts to reverse the law. Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, and El Paso have filed litigation to stop the bill. On June 9, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that he was asking City Council members to consider joining efforts to challenge the constitutionality of the bill, too. “I think the reality is that this will be tied up in the courts for quite some time,” Jones said. “And we hope that the law will never be able to see the light of day.”

Texas isn’t alone in confronting a cities-versus-state division in certain pieces of legislation, and AILA isn’t the only organization faced with relocating its annual event. Click here to learn about recent challenges for conference organizers in North Carolina and Tennessee due to controversial laws.

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